Monday, May 22, 2017

On Walking on the Wild Side

Let's say, in one way or another, you're an 18-year-old queer. Maybe you're bisexual. Maybe you're straight-up gay. Maybe you're transgender. You're just starting to figure things out. You may be fighting any voice telling you that you have to think a certain way or be a certain way because of your identity. And let's say, you are one of those kids who, exercising a bit of nostalgia, got really into Lou Reed and David Bowie in middle school. Maybe you survived high school by watching Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1971) and Fellini Satyricon (Federico Fellini, 1969). Hell, maybe you read the actual Satyricon, or the Symposium,  or The Immortalist. These works of art didn't do gay pride. They did gay shame and they revelled in it. They were you.

And then this happens at your college campus during your freshman year:
The Guelph Central Student Association, a group at the University of Guelph in Ontario, apologised for including the song on a playlist at a campus event. 
In an apology published to Facebook and subsequently removed, the group said: “We now know the lyrics to this song are hurtful to our friends in the trans community and we’d like to unreservedly apologize for this error in judgement.” 
The lyrics in question focus on Reed’s friends from Andy Warhol’s Factory, among them transgender “superstars” Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling. 
“Holly came from Miami, FLA,” Reed sings. “Hitchhiked her way across the USA/ Plucked her eyebrows on the way/ Shaved her legs and then he was a she/ She says, ‘Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side.’”
And now, you have to step back and re-assess at a moment in your life when you are seriously struggling with so much garbage that hit you in your previous 18 years. What am I supposed to like? Am I bad person for looking to "Walk on the Wild Side," a wonderful celebration of letting your freak fly, as a means of "saving" myself?

Now, to be fair, I can see why a transgender person might not like "Walk on the Wild Side."  After all, if you are a transgender person who does not think your identity is about being a creature of the night in New York in the early 1970s, if you just, maybe, happen to be a transgender person who sees yourself one day joining the army or getting a job at McKinsey, this might be a cruel, mean-spirited song. And if there aren't enough images of transgender people in our media that avoid such grim, weirdo, hyper-sexed depictions, you might, as a means of making change, ask to put this kind of work aside for maybe a few years while society figures some things out. But I doubt that's the belief of every single transgender person. (A little bit of a hedge, I know. But anytime someone screams at me that I have no right to speak for trans people, or anyone else, I immediately think, "Wait a second! So does every trans person feel the exact same way about being trans, because god knows that is so obviously not the case.") Others may take this song, like so much of Lou Reed and David Bowie's work, as liberating.

So now this 18-year-old kid has to sit down and figure out what's okay to like and what is not okay to like and now, all of those people who for the previous 18 years were telling them that they were just a weirdo for digging the 1960s/1970s queer counterculture are now being replaced by a new group of people telling them that they are an oppressor.

If you've noticed, I'm trying to maintain gender netural pronouns in this post, something I haven't done in this blog, or in most of my writing, but which I am trying to change. I don't have a problem with most of the movement that is calling the gender binary into question. The University of Washington no longer lists my students as male or female. I'm all for it. KUOW, the local NPR station, now uses gender neutral pronouns. I think it's great. It all makes sense to me.

But stop and think how alienating these kinds of calls-to-action for every single instance of possible offensiveness can be for that 18-year-old kid. When I first saw this story all I could think, "How joyless..." And I could imagine the average 18-year-old queer weirdo thinking the same thing.

So what happens to that kid? Well, they may go knock on the door of the College Republicans, who these days are pretty cool with the gays -- to a degree -- even if they aren't so cool with transgender folk or everyone else. Or maybe, they just won't knock on any doors on campus. Screw those queer safe spaces and the feel-ins, they'll think. The people in Lou Reed's song sound wonderful. They must have so many interesting stories to tell and such a fascinating way of carrying themselves. Maybe they'll just go clubbing where they'll walk a little bit on the wild side, because, fuck it, those clubs where people give each other blow jobs in the bathroom look pretty safe at the moment.

On Movies That Get "It" Right

Everyone has a habit of declaring movies "real" or "unreal." If a movie comes from another culture, we attribute the mores and attitudes in the movie to a world that we don't know. Quite a few people who have seen Da hong deng long gao gao gua / Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou, 1991), often the first and only Chinese movie they have ever seen, and take it as non-fiction, ignoring the fantastic stylizations. Whenever students defend a movie by saying, "Yeah, but that's how it is in China/the inner city/Buenos Aires/Iran," I ask them, "How many of you have seen high school movies or TV shows?" All hands go up. "How many of you have ever seen a high school movie or TV show that accurately depicted your high school?" All hands go down.

For me there are a few movies and TV shows that do get middle school and high school right or right enough. The scene in Welcome to the Dollhouse (Todd Solondz, 1995) where a group of alpha girls asks Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) if she's a lesbian is a more honest depiction of the cruelty of bullying than anything I see in Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004). The depiction of gay adolescence in the second season of American Crime (2016) is more accurate than the clean coming-out trajectories you see in any number of independent gay films from the 1990s and 2000s. As a teacher, I relate to Mr. Raditch (Dan Woods) in the original Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High (1987-1991). The best depiction of the mess of teaching -- the drama of a classroom, the difficulty of bridging the distance between yourself and your students, and the painful inability to figure out if the students are getting anything from you -- is Entre les murs / The Class (Laurent Cantet, 2008). Unlike the recent spate of gay TV, Nighthawks (Ron Peck, 1978) understands that gay clubs can be montonous and Parting Glances (Bill Sherwood, 1986) understands that gay parties can be pleasant and very weird at the same time. The Sopranos (1999-2007) got enough right about the college search and hell of a lot right about my classmates from Columbia even if the campus scenes were shot up the street at the Union Theological Seminary. I hestitate to declare the recent Romanian films indicative of a Balkan mindset, but I have to say that I've had similar uncomfortable and hilarious conversations to the one that makes up the long comic sketch at the center of A fost sau n-a fost? / 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006). 

I have yet to see a good depiction of expat life in Europe or Southeast Asia. I have yet to see a good depiction of grad school life. I always think the scene in Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, 1976) in which a teacher berates Ph.D. student Babe (Dustin Hoffman) for having a too specific thesis that doesn't take in the entire history of the twentieth century hilarious, just as I'm amused by the rapid four-to-six-year rise of a single mother from community-college student to tenure track professor in Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) inspiring. One day I may teach a class on movies that depict subcultures of New York: Parting Glances, Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979), Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973), Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989), Metropolitan (Whit Stillman, 1990). They're great movies, but none of them feel exactly like my New York. I think law school students still relate to The Paper Chase (James Bridges, 1973) and wrestlers still relate to The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008). I'll take their word for it.

Friday, May 19, 2017

On What Happens to Blockbusters

You see a blockbuster on the opening midnight screening at an IMAX theater in, let's say, Pittsburgh in the summer of 2012. The movie is disappointing, but when you get out sometime between 2 and 3 am, you feel like you had a pleasant collective experience and you tell yourself that the 15-20 dollars you just spent was worthwhile. Three years later, you're at a bar in, let's say, Portland, and the TV is on. You see part of the same movie, on a small scale, with the sound off, with commercials. 

I feel nostalgia for the poor black-and-white televisions that were out-of-date in the eighties and nineties, but which were still around in our basements, and on which we sometimes saw sanitized versions of Magnum Force (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1973) and Halloween III (Ted Post, 1982). Everytime I watch a VHS tape -- usually because there's something available on them I can't get anywhere else and which I need for my dissertation -- I remember how I discovered movies when I was a kid. I'm already feeling nostalgia for the bizarre rise-and-fall of these multi-million-dollar-plus works of entertainment, from the IMAX theater to a set of images everyone is ignoring at a bar because they're too busy talking to each other or looking at their phones.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

On Slaveowners

In an introduction for an anniversary edition of The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron wrote about his grandmother and the first time he learned that this woman, who had been a child during the Civil War and had witnessed Sherman's March, had once owned slaves. This was in the 1930s, and he was amazed that right before him, in the flesh, was this relic of a long ancient history.

I never had anything quite like that in my childhood, although I did come close once. A white elementary-school teacher who had grown up in Georgia in the 1950s and '60s told us a devastating story about how she once demanded that a black person take a seat in the back of the bus so she and her white friend could take seats in the front. As someone who only heard stories about white racist ogres, the story was surprising for two reasons. One, my elementary-school teacher was a warm, affectionate woman. Second, in her telling, the other white passengers on the bus were disgusted by her behavior, and the white bus driver gave her an ugly look that she would never forget. Of course, those passengers still let the cruelty to happen. No one got off the bus in protest. The lived experience of segregation was more complex than what we had been taught up to that point.

I haven't read that much history about slavery, but what little I've read suggests that the emotional havoc the system enacted on white slaveholders as well as on black slaves is difficult to sort out. Eighteen fifty America is a foreign country with its own codes of conduct. The Romanian movie Aferim! (Radu Jude, 2015), which tells the story of a bounty hunter who hunts down a slave and returns him to a boyar gets at the problem. How do people with a conscience function in a society in which moral codes are so different? What does morality in the past mean? A Southern lady who abuses a house slave in 1850 America is a product of her time. A housewife who abuses her Filipino nanny in 2017 is a psychopath.

The truth is, of course, that there are more slaves alive in the world than there have ever been at any other point in human history. Some of those slaves helped build NYU's satellite campus in Dubai. Some of them picked the oranges I buy at Safeway. And some of them are caught in situations you don't even think about. Alex Tizon describes his life with his parents' slave Lola who had been gifted to his mother by his grandfather in the Phillipines in 1942. When the family emigrated to the U.S., they took Lola with them. She remained a slave until Tizon's mother's death in 1999. She lived with Tizon for the remaining 12 years of her life.

The article is being talked about everywhere on earth. It's a shame that Tizon did not live long enough to see it make print. He died less than two months ago. I won't go into any details about the article, and I can't even begin to touch on what it says about the psychology of a slave. But if we try to figure out what the hell went on in the head of a Mississippi slaveowner in the 1850s, we can see some hints in the story of Tizon's mother. Here's the first chilling moment. 

One day during the war Lieutenant Tom came home and caught my mother in a lie -- something to do with a boy she wasn't supposed to talk to. Tom, furious, ordered her to "stand at the table." Mom cowered with Lola in a corner. Then, in a quivering voice, she told her father that Lola would take her punishment. Lola looked at Mom pleadingly, then without a word walked to the dining table and held on to the edge. Tom raised the belt and delivered 12 lashes, punctuating each one with a word. You. Do. Not. Lie. To. You. Do. Not. Lie. To. Me. Lola made no sound. 
My mother, in recounting this story late in her life, delighted in the outrageousness of it, her tone seeming to say, Can you believe I did that? When I brought it up with Lola, she asked to hear Mom's version. She listened intently, eyes lowered, and afterward she looked at me with sadness and said simply, "Yes. It was like that."
Tizon's mother doesn't sound all that different from a grown woman who laughs off something terrible and traumatic she did to her younger sibling. I've met many such people.

But there is another side to Tizon's mother. Lower down:
She'd come to America and fought for respect as both a woman and an immigrant physician. She'd worked for two decades at Fairview Training Center, in Salem, a state institutions for the developmentally disabled. The irony: She tended to underdogs most of her professional life. They worshipped her. Female colleagues became close friends. They did silly, girly things together -- shoe shopping, throwing dress-up parties at one another's homes, exchanging gag gifts like penis-shaped soaps and calendars of half-naked men, all while laughing hysterically. Looking through their party pictures reminded me that Mom had a life and an identity apart from the family and Lola. Of course.
Talk of but not about your sins. Keep the evil you do contained to a specific part of your life. Laugh at the weak. I doubt the slaveowners of the past were any different.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

On Jokes in Superhero Movies

A taxonomy of jokes in superhero movies and television shows:

1. Supposed inside jokes meant for people with cursory knowledge of the superheroes' origins in comics and/or comics history in general.
In The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb, 2014), Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) tells Aunt May (Sally Field) that no one has gotten a decent pay for freelance photography since 1962. Nineteen sixty-two is the year that Spider-Man first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15. This joke functions to flatter comics readers, remind them that they are smarter than the people in the theater who do not read comics. 
2. References to previous film or animation depictions of superheroes.
In Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004), a street violinist (Elyse Dinh) plays the theme song from the animated series Spider-Man, which ran from 1967-1970. This is a nostalgic joke. 
3. Jokes about male costumes.
In the first season of The Flash (2014-2015), The Flash (Grant Gustin) says that he's not wearing a leather suit, but rather a polymer fabric that serves a functional purpose. The joke tries to defuse gay panic, while still winkingly admitting to the inherent eroticism of superhero costumes. You can hear similar jokes during interviews with Olympic athletes every four years. 
4. Jokes about female costumes.
In the first season of Supergirl (2015-2016), Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) tries to find a costume that is tasteful and not too revealing. The joke apologizes for the male gaze.  
5. Jokes about navigating the same world the rest of us navigate.
In Captain America: Civil War (Anthony and Joe Russo, 2016), Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) fight over leg space in a tiny European car. Superheroes! They're just like us! 
6. Jokes about heroes behaving pathetically.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015), the Avengers take turns trying to pick up Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) hammer in a hold my beer competition. Superheroes! They're just like us! 
7. Fish-out-of-water jokes.
In Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011), Thor behaves like a god, swilling beer in the middle of a quiet all-American cafe.  These jokes play to the fantasy of having a friend from another world whom you can teach the ways of your own. 
8. Celebrity cameo appearance humor. 
In Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010), Bill O'Reilly has a cameo as himself. The superheroes are grounded in our world.
9. Stan Lee appearance humor.
It's mostly about ritual at this point. His appearance Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (James Gunn, 2017) is also a point 1 joke.
10. Calling into question the vanity of superheroes and supervillains.
In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) makes fun of Taserface's (Chris Sullivan) name. Taserface, despite putting on the airs as a great supervillain, is humiliated.  
11. Pop-music jokes.
The soundtrack from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 makes a lot of uncool people feel more cool. 
12. Lovable-jerk jokes.
One-liners from Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) in The Avengers films (2012-2015), Iron Man films (2008-2013), and Captain America: Civil War. Tony Stark is fun on screen. You would punch him in the face in real life and you would be right to. 
13. Judd Apatow-movie humor
In Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013), a poor schmuck named Richard (Chris O'Dowd) just can't compete with the object of his affection's true love, Thor. These jokes often work.
14. Sex jokes.
In The Incredible Hulk (Louis Letterier, 2008), Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) stops himself from having sex with Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) when it becomes clear that he might end up becoming the Hulk. These jokes never go too far. No one ever wonders how bad things could go if a well-endowed Hulk had sex. No one ever thinks about the bedroom possibilities offered by the many characters' abilities. 
15. Out-of-nowhere, hey-that's-good humor
Ben Kingsley's genius performance in Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013); Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) just hitting a computer keyboard in Iron Man 2. These jokes show up once in every 400 minutes of screentime.
The funniest and best superhero movie is Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992). It either avoids or transcends most of this humor. I dig the light touches in the better X-Men movies (2000-2017). In X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000), Magneto (Ian McKellen) faces off with the X-Men in the Statue of Liberty. When they threaten to zap him with a lightning bolt, Magneto says, "Oh yes! A bolt of lightning through a copper conductor. I thought you lived in a school."

The movies could be better and smarter, but we don't want them to be.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

On Schindler's List

At the end of 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013) and The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002), it's clear that the heroes have been robbed of their homes, that something inside them has been murdered and can never be resurrected.

At the end of Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993), the Holocaust is just a bad dream. It's The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) in reverse. When the Schindler Jews place stones on their savior's grave, you can practically hear them: "And you were there! And you were there! And you! And you!"

On Anthony Weiner

In 50 years, Miami will cease to exist and the UK, Italy, and the Middle East will cease to be inhabitable, because the current president refuses to do what is necessary to combat climate change. The president is in office because he ran against a woman who had a close confidante who had a husband who texted a teenage girl with his rape fantasies. 

Humans, man. "Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!"

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

On My Hard Questions

Hi. I'm a good liberal. Some questions are easy for me. Should the government guarantee basic nutrition for all citizens? Yep. Should the death penalty be banned? Yep.

Some questions are hard for me.

1. As someone who believes in affirmative action, I'm not always so sure about the guidelines for its implementation. I also fear that a reliance on affirmative action to correct for injustices has proven inadequate and may have made some things worse. Am I wrong?

2. I'm glad that the acceptance of transgender people troubles the gender binary. How long can we assume the gender binary doesn't exist in any manifestation? What do biologists say?

3. If art can hurt people in material, physical ways, is there ever a case in which we should consider total censorship of a work of art?

4. Can we treat extremely homophobic parents of gay kids as child abusers?

5. How do we balance the rights of the accused and the rights of the accuser in rape cases?

6. Two-state solution? One-state solution?

7. Who isn't a war criminal?

8. How do you measure good teaching? Can it be measured?

9. Priorities: How much energy should we put into solving any other problem besides climate change?

On the Dangers of Art

I already ripped into the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why (2017). Most of my criticisms were aesthetic, but at the end of my post I wrote the following:
Is 13 Reasons Why dangerous? Maybe. Despite its stated intensions to complicate the issue, it operates on the assumption that suicide can be clearly explained, that there is always an obvious cause and effect, which is just not the case. The show enacts the suicide victim's fantasy, that their death will cause overwhelming suffering and guilt in others, that they will inflict all the pain that has been inflicted on themselves. Hannah's death in the final episode may not be beautiful, but it is pretty.
Yesterday, Slate published a lengthy article claiming that the answer to my question is not a maybe. The article expands on my concerns, and notes that suicide-prevention advocates are trying to undo the damange done by the show. A superintendant has reported a rise in at-risk behavior. The depiction of the incompetent guidance counselor in the show makes the work of actual, very good, highly professional guidance counselors more difficult.

No one can be a free speech absolutist, but as a free speech extremist, I find stories like these troubling. I believe artists need to be allowed to create art. The concept of "art for art's sake" appeals to me. Philip Roth once noted that writing and reading needed no more justification than sex, and I agree with him. It's an appealing idea, because it lets me live in a universe in which the novels I read and enjoy can't do any harm. Still, it seems dishonest to believe that novels, television shows, and movies are harmless. Of course, a novel can hurt your feelings. Of course, unrelenting depictions of black criminals will affect how black kids might see themselves. Why wouldn't that be the case? Inputs matter. I'm part of a school of thought that believes culture should not be the site of major political change. I'm glad Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) won Best Picture, but the hard socialist in me screams that the Oscar hasn't gotten a job for one gay black man living in the Miami ghetto. The other part of me knows that Moonlight made that one gay black man in Miami a little less anxious and may have saved his life. The people behind Moonlight had power. They used it well.

The power that at least some filmmakers hold should terrify them. I'm sure the people behind 13 Reasons Why thought they were participating in a noble project. It must be devastating to know that their work may have hurt more people than it helped. It would be a little less devastating if they had made a masterpiece, like The Sopranos (1999-2007).

Art heals. Art kills.